Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Crucifixion of James Frey

Painting by Ed Ruscha, for James Frey

Anyone who reads my blog knows that my life is all about telling the truth, that is – my personal truth. But who are we to define what another’s truth is? And what is truth in art?

I read James Frey's A Million Little Pieces shortly after it came out, and loved it. As a person with an addict father and brother, it opened my eyes and helped me to see things in a new way. I immediately sent the book to my father, and he too, was rocked to his foundation by it.

And then the big scandal hit. It seems Frey “embellished” details of his memoir.
Did this change the experience I had reading the book? No. Did it change the fact that the book had enabled me to see addiction in a different way, and to have a better understanding of my father? No. I didn’t care whether Frey had spent three months or 3 minutes in prison. I didn’t care whether he had anesthesia at the dentist or not. The book was ground breaking and fresh and artistic. His voice was compelling and authentic. It moved me. It made me think. Isn’t that what a great book is supposed to do?

I, too, wrote a memoir. I spent 37 years trying to forget my past, and another eight in therapy and in writing groups, trying to remember it. And even though the book is written, I struggle with whether or not to publish it, because truth is a powerful blade, and you have to be careful how you wield it. And, as I know all too well, many people will challenge your truth. But memoir is not journalism. Memoir is your own personal story, as experienced through your own filters, as told by YOU. No one else can tell us what our truth is, or should be.

One friend, after reading my manuscript, had a hard time believing I could remember so much detail about my young life. As I told her, in memoir writing, you start from the deepest most searing memories, and you work from there. The moment that changed your life could have been one simple statement, or a memory that is a 20-second video clip in your head. But that does not a story make, and so we must paint in the rest of the picture. None of us have lived our lives carrying around a tape recorder, so you do your best to fill in the missing details. I kept journals all my life, which helped a lot. I also did genealogy research and interviewing family and google fact-checking on my own stories.

But in recreating the rest of it, you have to ask yourself, what is emotionally true to me in this scene? How did I feel? What colors did I see, what did the room smell like? When writing dialogue, you have to bring each character back to life in your head. How did Uncle Joe stand, speak, walk? What were sayings he always used? Would it be honest to say he would have used one of his famous “Uncle Joe-isms” in the scene?

All of my writing teachers over the years have told me to “write what is true”. But in memoir, some of the strokes are loose. One of my favorite essayists, Tony Earley, wrote a story about watching the moon landing in 1969. After it was published, a fact-checker rebuked him for saying it had been a full moon that night, because in fact, it had been a quarter moon. Does that mean Tony Earley is a liar, and everyone who read that piece should get their money back? No. It means that as a small child, the moon seemed so huge and unreachable as he looked up through his neighbor’s telescope, that his mind remembered it as big and round. Our memories do that - fill in the blanks. Each of us will tell the same story a different way. What is true for you may not be true for me, and there is no such thing as absolute truth anyway. So who are we to say what was emotionally true for Frey?

One of the things I found so exhilarating about A Million Little Pieces was Frey’s irreverent disregard for rules: He used no punctuation, capitalization or writing rules. He had no MFA. A copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style was certainly nowhere to be found in his writing lair. So why is it a shock to anyone that he paid no attention to “memoir writing rules” – and what are those, anyway? His book was his own piece of art- a world that Frey has often said he is more influenced by than the literary world. And so, he wrote his story in his own way. As Frey said on Oprah yesterday, Picasso’s “self-portrait” has him looking like a strange, blue, cockeyed monster, so does that mean he’s a liar and a fake? A Million Little Pieces is Frey’s self portrait, and maybe he is portraying himself as a strange, blue, cockeyed monster.

I find it ridiculous that the world went so crazy with judgment on Frey, including Oprah. I have to admit, I was disgusted watching her persecute him on national television in 2006. He didn’t deserve that. As a writer, I personally would never stretch the truth the way Frey did, but I’m not him. I write the way I write, and he writes the way he writes. He plays fast and loose with the rules, I don’t. So what. Either you like the book and it opens your eyes, or it doesn’t. Get over it and let Frey get back to using his voice his way.

I will agree that he and his publishers shouldn’t have called his book  “memoir”, because it casts doubt on the rest of us who are trying to write in that genre and be taken seriously. Maybe he could have done what Tony Earley did in his book Somehow Form A Family – which was to classify his book as “Stories That Are Mostly True”. Or, like a TV movie of the week, he could have said it was a story based on his own life experiences. That would have solved the problem. He initially shopped the book as a novel, and it didn’t sell. They asked him to publish it as memoir, and it was an off-the-charts success, inspiring people all over the world. So that was his deal with the Devil- letting the book be mis-categorized for the sake of getting it sold. But for this man to have been nailed to the cross and humiliated in front of the world, to the point where he had to move his family to another country to escape the finger pointing and threats, we have to ask ourselves not what is wrong with James Frey, but what is wrong with us?


  1. I watched him on Oprah and I read the book. I was not impressed. It was a story I had heard many times over from people in person who lived the life or their kids did. He was smug and I think blamed everyone but himself. He was arrogant and said he didn't like memoirs and would not change much of anything. I was not impressed and his use of the English language with dems and doe's made him sound like a self serving, not well bred individual. His apologies were not real to me. I am glad his book helped others but he said he didn't want a self help book. I think he is not an honest person. Whether what he did was honest or not he still is not taking responsibility. A novel is a novel and when you can't sell you don't then make it a memoir. It denigrates writers and memoirs in particular.

  2. i'm not sure i understand your point, hollye. the guy wrote a book, tried to sell it - at first as a piece of fiction - it didn't sell, his publisher said, let's try and sell it as 'a memoir,' - FOLKS LOVE LOVE drama and intensity and dark & nasty. so, he sold it for a million bucks plus. a huge amount of money.
    he didn't sell it as a piece of fiction, but sold it as memoir. and that was a lie.
    it's REALITY TV AT BEST. it's the bullshit of the media. it's selling people of bunch of lies.
    i can't honor mr. frey. i think he got caught with this tail between his legs, and now he is apologizing for not being straight forward to begin with.
    not a fan of his.
    not one bit.
    and yeah, he's a decent writer. but he's now made it painfully difficult for other writers to be read and taken seriously.

  3. I agree Amy. Not sure he is even a good writer.

  4. Good one, Hollye. I totally agree! I too still love the book, no matter what ...

    Thank you for this.

  5. Interesting post. I remember vividly picking up James Frey's book years ago off the shelves in a bookstore. I remember thinking, you know I lived a story like this, but this one does not feel real to me. I had (have) two brothers who were addicts, now recovered, and the story in the book was too in your face, too demanding, not real to me. I thought to myself, I don't need to read this, nope, I lived the real deal.

    And as for his being revealed for what was true compared to what he claimed? Um, I don't have any qualms with that. I think you can't say this is what happened and then reveal that that was just a made up pile of lies. If it isn't the truth, then call it fiction...or call it something besides a non-fiction piece of writing.

    As for Oprah, .... I'd take her stance over James Frey's any day. She may have erred some in this or in other ways, perhaps, but her track record speaks volumes at least in my view....there's really no contest here. A Million Little Pieces....ironic title.... I still haven't read the book ...and won't.

  6. I get that he lied and is ultimately responsible for his own actions, why he apologized, but also that new writers are often vulnerable to the self-serving interests of publishers, becoming like worried mothers sending their first child to kindergarten, thinking teacher knows best after twenty kids a year for twelve years rather than trust their own wellspring. It's hard to know sometimes. We all make mistakes.

  7. Definitely a heated subject. And while Frey made a huge mistake, I still think he is a fabulous writer whose book touched many lives.
    I'm wondering if you all watched the very real, very touching confrontation and healing between he and Oprah on part 2 of her interview with him. She actually cried and apologized for skewering him, and admitted she was defending her ego. She found compassion for him and felt great regret for the way she had treated him. I'm not sure if you watched that show in 2006, but I felt like i was watching a bully beat on someone who was already lying on the floor bleeding. It made me feel physically sick. And I LOVE Oprah. LOVE.
    but you know, we all had something to learn in this conflict. People make mistakes, and forgiveness is possible. And healing....well, that is BEAUTIFUL to see, and I saw that today between them.

  8. I didn't see any of the Oprah stuff and I didn't read Million Pieces, but I did read his follow-up, My Friend Leonard. And of course I read and saw a lot of press debating both sides of the argument -- kinda like we're doing here now.

    First off, Hollye, I applaud you for leaping into the fray (lol). I think you are very brave for opening this dialogue and encouraging it. Second, I will come "out" and say I agree with you. I hated all the excoriation at the time and still shrug my shoulders at it now. I loved his 2nd book and loved his voice. I also think that a first time writer is very vulnerable -- anyone who has struggled to get their voice heard (either through publication or getting it onto the screen) knows how much hand-wringing and desperation can affect your judgment. Not to say it's okay to make deals with the devil, but let's put it into context. His gaffe did NOT have a long term affect on the publishing industry in general or on writers in particular. It wasn't a manufactured expose in a newspaper (I don't agree with making stuff up and selling it as news -- where the repercussions can be devastating). There simply were no dire repercussions to anyone but himself (and maybe Oprah's ego) that are worth the anger, the vitriol, the skewering. The lie didn't last very long and his writing style is still going to be a "matter of taste". And Frey certainly isn't the first talented artist to be egotistical, self-absorbed and one-track-minded.

    It makes for interesting dialogue, but I still would rather have read his work, then for it to have languished unpublished in his drawer... And I would rather be receptive to creative work, be exposed to it, question it, debate it, than to "throw stones".


  9. I interviewed Frey a year or so after the brouhaha on Oprah. I was teaching an undergraduate course on memoir (not writing memoir, but studying it), and the students were brutal with him. Have to say he was gracious about agreeing to talk to the kids, but there were a few fascinating elements, some of which are touched upon here, some not. He did say that it was his editor, Nan Talese, who told him that memoir had to be only 85% true (huh!?), and that he believed her. Likely disingenuous, but I'm not surprised in the least. Memoirs were selling; publishers want to make money (thus all the celebrity memoirs...) But he also told the students, "I'm laughing all the way to the bank."

    He also made a great big deal about how he was creating a new language, that he was this great new creative being.

    I wasn't particularly moved by the book, but that's what makes horse races.

    I think some of the conversation needs to be about that "what will sell" question. In essence I think the whole idea of memoir is merely an invention--quality fiction can touch us in all those same places quality memoir can, and had the publishers had any balls, Frey's book would simply have been called, as it should have been, a novel. It would either have touched you, Hollye (and others) or it would not have.

  10. I just love this conversation, and the fact that I have such brilliant friends each with their own thoughtful perspectives. I thank you all so much for sharing your views- this is a multi-faceted issue, and you are all contributing to the "whole" picture.
    To Amy and Amy- I know you both had personal experiences with him, and he may be a jerk. I haven't- have only seen him in interviews where he seemed authentic to me. But ....you never know.
    Keep the comments coming, people! Let's work this out.

  11. I'm left wondering what truth really is!? My own memories of almost every shared event in my life differ wildly from others' memories of the same event. My inner experience of these events have, by necessity, been embellished as I've struggled to unearth archetypal patterns and thus my own universal truths. And yes, if I have toyed with the idea of doing this or that but haven't quite manifested it, why yes yes yes, it is my truth, part of my memoir. The mind has a life of its own and if I've imagined an event, if I've plotted and played it out in the complicated corners of my mind, then yes yes yes, it has really happened...

  12. My sister and my memories growing up in the same house are totally different. She remembers everything and I barely remember her:)

  13. James Frey lied. He didn't reassemble facts in an unusual way, he didn't remember something differently than others might have. He lied. He lied about facts that could verified as lies by examination of public records. He lied about the central narrative of his story. He brought disgrace and shame upon many, many talented writers who work in the fields of memoir and creative non-fiction, several of whom are my friends.

    Read The Smoking Gun. They burned his lying ass. And in a just world, that ass will continue to burn, in hell and beyond.



I love hearing your point of view- thank you for taking the time to comment and be part of the conversation!